If you do a quick search online about cinematic photography, you’ll be flooded with videos and articles giving you the simple, sure-fire ways to make your photographs look cinematic.

And by and large, they are full of nothing but flat out lies and misinformation.

There are some great resources out there, to be sure. But overall, it’s the same few bits of information, rather misinformation, driving this trend.

NOTE: All actual film stills in this article are used courtesy of the FilmGrab website and are the property of the respective studios. Used here as an educational example to illustrate concepts. All other photographs are my own.

A little background

Before you jump on me for being hypocritical, let me explain.

Yes, I am deep into a transition to a more cinematic approach to my own photographic work. It’s a process that began, without my knowledge or intent, a few years ago.

The difference is that a cinematic approach to my work is VERY different than what the popular websites and influencers claim is cinematic.

As a lifelong fan of cinema and film, my own work is absolutely influenced greatly by what cinematographers have been doing for ages.

The first lie – Super shallow depth of field

“All you need is a fast telephoto lens to eliminate everything except your subject.”

While it is true that cinema will use depth of field as a tool, it’s very rarely completely obliterating a background to nothing but a blur of color and light.

I’m not saying that shooting wide open and blowing out a background makes for a bad photo. It certainly has a time and place when it’s amazing.

But it doesn’t make a photo cinematic.

Let’s look at a few examples from some well known films/scenes utilizing a shallow depth of field, courtesy of the amazing FilmGrab website.

Inception – Christopher Nolan

Here are a few moments in the film utilizing a shallow depth of field.

Notice anything about these frames?

They all absolutely use a shallow depth of field. But none of them are shot so shallow that the background/foreground elements are completely turned to a beautiful blurred out splotch of color.

The reason?

Because while a shallow depth of field is desired to draw our eye to the main subject, we need the rest of the elements in the frame to give the subject context.

Remember cinema and film have one job. To tell a story. With no context for your subject you make it very difficult to tell a story that the viewer will be engaged with.

From a technical standpoint here’s the difference. When shooting a shallow depth of field portrait, photographers(myself included) will shoot as wide open as possible on their lens. Let’s just say anywhere from f/1.2 to f/2.8 depending on how fast your lens is.

These frames in the movie were likely more in the f/4 to f/5.6 range depending on how long of a lens they were using.

Big difference on visual impact, even though it’s a relatively small change to settings.

Shallow depth of field is a useful tool, but you need to shoot just shallow enough to give separation to your subject while still allowing the background/foreground elements to provide context to your scene.

Remember, job number one of a film is to tell a story. A cinematic style still photograph should carry that same purpose.

Star Wars : The Empire Strikes Back – Irvin Kershner

In fact, some of the most memorable and epic scenes in a film are shot with an incredibly DEEP depth of field.

The Second Lie – Perfect Studio Lighting

This one is a bit trickier as movie scenes are meticulously well lit, but it’s not always just beautiful studio portrait lighting.

Let me give you an example of my own.

When creating beautiful portraits our job as a photographer is to utilize the most beautiful, flattering light we possibly can for our subjects.

In these examples I was using a single strobe/shoot through umbrella setup out in the middle of a field. It made for some fun photos that the client loved, but it’s not cinematic lighting and in no way, shape, or form makes these photos “cinematic”.

Yes, we may find times in films where the subject is lit beautifully and perfectly. But more often than not, the light in the scene of a film is carefully crafted around the story of a scene and there to serve as a road map, dicatating the feel and mood of the scene.

A Quiet Place – Jon Krasinski

This film is a great example of how the lighting dictates the tone of the film. Some scenes needing to be tender and warm, others bleak and full of suspense.

But none of them feature a perfect key light, hair light, studio combo of lighting where our subjects are lit for the pages of Vanity Fair.

Notice how those frames all let light indicate a feeling of peaceful, sometimes tender moments. These are necessary in a film like A Quiet Place.

Since the overall tone of this film is extreme tension, those peaceful moments serve two purposes.

First as a slight mental break for the viewer to avoid tension fatigue with the story. Second as a contrast to the tension filled scenes, giving us as viewers more of a connection to the characters.

That actually serves to increase the overall tension we feel because those connections to the characters raise the stakes for the horrors that await. If we don’t feel a connection to the characters as viewers AND if the characters don’t feel that warm connection between each other, when the threat from the monsters comes, no one cares.

The other secret to cinematic lighting

Granted, I gave you an example of just one film. BUT, there is one consistent thing that runs between almost every film out there.

The light falling in the scene or on a character appears natural. I say APPEARS because there may be insane amounts of lights intricately placed throughout the scene, but they ALL appear to have a natural source in the scene.

Be it sunlight, a lamp, a television screen, the dashboard of a car or spaceship, the glow of a light-saber, even a glowing alien creature that emits light from it’s toes, there is ALWAYS a logical source for that light.

A standard studio portrait lighting setup of a key light, with a rim light and fill light isn’t always a “natural” feeling light source.

Which is why having that beautiful studio lighting as the second “key ingredient” to creating cinematic photographs is completely misinformed.

Lighting is critical to a cinematic scene, but it all needs to have some sort of logical, believable source for the scene to make sense.

Remember, it’s about telling a believable story.

The Third Lie – Slap on a preset/lut

There is no doubt that the color grade of a film can make or break the mood and feeling of the story for the viewer.

But that color isn’t provided by just hitting a quick preset that’s called “cinematic tonez” and then saying it made your photo cinematic.

Sadly, it’s one of the most common tips given about how to make your photos look cinematic and one of the largest bits of misinformation out there. You can find thousands of tutorials about “Editing your way to a cinematic look”, but unless you’ve take great care with the capture of your photo, no matter what editing process or preset or lut that you apply, the photo still won’t BE cinematic.

We need to remember what exactly makes up a cinematic feeling still image. The composition, layers and depth to the photograph, lighting, etc. Once we have that initial capture it’s then that we can add the finishing touches with color to bring that photograph to it’s full cinematic potential.

The Lord of the Rings : The Fellowship of the Ring

There are countless examples of amazing color use in film so I’m not going to go too crazy with examples here. But using The Lord of the Rings, you can see how important color is as a finishing touch.

Be it to help convey a carefree, light feeling such as these examples.

Or a feeling of danger and hardship such as these examples.

In summary for the TL:DR crowd

A cinematic approach to your still photography can be a beautiful thing, allowing you to create images with incredible impact and connection with your viewers.

Sadly, the TREND of advice on “How to create cinematic photography” or “How to make your photos look cinematic” is typically filled with a lot of bad advice and complete misinformation.

Contrary to what the YouTube channels, FStoppers and PetaPixel articles, and Instagram Influencers will have you believe, creating a cinematic still photograph is NOT:

  • Super shallow depth of field with completely buttery smooth blown out backgrounds
  • Perfect studio lighting with a key light, and multiple hair/rim lights.
  • A preset or lut to give a crazy color scheme over the image

What DOES contribute to a still image being cinematic is:

  • Proper use of shallow depth of field. Enough to give separation to your subject but also enough depth to give layers and context to the image. It’s about serving the story you’re trying to tell.
  • Controlled use of lighting, no matter how intricate or simple the lighting scheme, that always has a logical feeling source in your image. There aren’t just random floating light sources giving perfect light so make the light believable to further serve the story.
  • Use color as the finishing touch to nudge your viewer down the path of the mood and feeling you are trying to convey with the image. You want them to connect with your photo, and good use of color can guide the viewer along the path.
  • IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY. Pay attention to your composition, lighting, color(or black and white even), and depth of field(either shallow or deep), so that you can present a final image that evokes a response to whatever story you are trying to tell with that photo.

Before you think I’m not practicing what I preach!

I wanted to give a few examples of my own work that I’ve created recently so that you didn’t think I was over here spouting off and ranting without actually following any of my own advice.

The following photos are all mine and are various small scenes that also illustrate the concepts we’ve just discussed. They are mostly color, but also some black and white photos because I enjoy the challenge to emulate some of the classic feel of black and white films in cinema as well.

Remember the number one key to cinematic still photography.

It’s ALL about the story. There are a lot of moving parts to consider when making a film but when you try to translate that to a still image you have one more hurdle to manage. The fact that you are trying to convey that same feeling in a single frame, without the benefit of pacing and time.

To quote a recent tweet I posted in response to an FStoppers article… ” I would also add that it leaves the viewer wanting to know a bit more about what happened in the moments before and just after the single image they are viewing. Conveying a feeling of motion, story, and mood to elicit an emotional response is key. Not an editing style.”

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